Underground water shortage a growing factor in world turmoil

What with all the other tragic, troubling and thought-provoking events going on in the world in the aftermath of ISIS terrorist attacks, especially in France, another important though less sensational story may have flown under the radar of public attention; or at least not received the attention it deserves.

Unfortunately that’s often the way with reports of scientific studies published in academic journals, however ground-breaking and important they may be regarding the future of humanity and life on earth.

The operative word here is “under,” as in underground, where water is stored in vast quantities, from relatively shallow to very deep.

Much of the world’s growing human population relies on groundwater for personal consumption, agricultural irrigation, and industrial activity. A third of Canada’s population, for example, relies on groundwater sources for its vital water supply. And Canada is regarded as a water-rich country compared with other less water-blessed parts of the world, including the Middle East, north Africa, northern India, China, and, increasingly, the southwestern and Midwestern United States.

But, strange as it may seem, it’s only been in recent years that anyone has tried to find a way to accurately measure the total amount of groundwater reserves accessible and suitable for human use.

As well, until this week there was a very important question that remained unanswered: How much of that water is sustainable? Are we draining those underground aquifers faster than they can be “renewed,” or replenished, by nature in the form of precipitation that eventually finds its way back down to them?

The answers to those questions are troubling, according to the report of a study published earlier this week in the journal Nature Geoscience. The study was done by an international team of hydrologists from the University of Victoria, the University of Texas, the University of Calgary, and the University of Gottingen in Germany. It was led by Victoria’s Dr. Tom Gleeson.

The study methods were extremely detailed, with data bases from close to a million watersheds, and 40,000 groundwater models used to arrive at a measurement of the total volume of groundwater under the Earth’s crust. That is close to 23 million cubic kilometres. That is enough to submerge all the land now above seal level to a depth of 180 metres of water.

So what’s the problem? The answer is most of that water, the deepest, is “so old, isolated, and stagnant it should be thought of as non-renewable,” said a University of Victoria media release, quoting Gleeson. Sometimes this “old” water contains arsenic or uranium and is often more salty than ocean water.

The study came up with an innovative way of identifying newer, shallower aquifers that are more accessible and more suitable for human consumption. The researchers looked for the presence of radioactive tritium that entered the natural environment as a result of above-ground nuclear bomb testing in the 1960s during the Cold War. That water is mainly found within a few hundred metres of the surface where it is susceptible to contamination from human activity and the effects of climate change, the researchers said.

Those highly-used, vulnerable aquifers account for less than six percent of the Earth’s total groundwater; but they take a “lifetime” of 50 years to renew and they’re already being drained faster than that, Gleeson said.

“This has never been known before,” he said. “We already know that water levels in a lot of aquifers are dropping. We’re using our groundwater resources faster than they’re being renewed.”

The next step will be a follow-up study looking at how quickly both old and new, or “modern,” groundwater reserves are being used up.

“Since we know how much groundwater is being depleted and how much there is, we will be able to estimate how long until we run out,” Gleeson said.

In some parts of the world that is already starting to happen, and may already be a factor in events shaking our world.

Coincidentally this week two other studies, done by other researchers at the University of California using NASA satellite data, were also in the news; again, unfortunately, that was not high-profile news, except perhaps in California where long-term drought conditions and the consequences have already become a huge problem.

An on-line Reuters article referring to a report published in the journal Water Resources Research, said “eight of the planet’s 37 biggest aquifers are classified as ‘overstressed’ because they have almost no new water flowing in to offset usage.”

The Arabian aquifer system, a key water source for 60 million people in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, Syria and other countries is the most overstressed, the report said. Now there’s food for thought indeed, given the current, terrible troubles in the region of the Middle East.

The Indus basin aquifer in northern India and Pakistan is the second most troubled aquifer, followed by the Murzuk-Djado Basin under north Africa.

Those regions are already experiencing various levels of political and social unrest and continuing water shortage will “invariably” exacerbate those problems, the California researchers said.

Certainly, political strife and drought in North Africa has already caused many thousands of desperate people to leave that region and join the flood of refugees now crossing the Mediterranean Sea – and drowning in it – to reach Europe.

Is the stress of water shortages in Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a factor in the turmoil of that region? And if so, what can be done about it?

In looking for underlying reasons why our world is experiencing an epoch of history-changing events and instability, it’s apparent we need to think more about what’s right under our feet in our global village.

Originally published in The Sun Times in November, 2015

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